Ask a fan to describe a ballpark and he (and/or she) will probably talk about the backdrop (like buildings in the background), the seating or unique features like the Green Monster in Boston or the slight incline that used to be in Houston’s centerfield (a really bad idea that probably seemed fun and quirky to some ballpark designer, but every centerfielder who ever played there hated).
Ask a player to describe a ballpark and he’ll talk about the playing surface, the dugouts, the clubhouse, the indoor batting cages, bullpens and equipment rooms.
Fans and players use ballparks in completely different ways, so a feature that matters a lot to a player might not even register with a fan and vice versa. For instance:
After he played there for the first time, I asked a player what he thought of Kauffman Stadium and he said:
“Best dirt I ever stood on.”
The player was a middle infielder and he explained that every time a runner went past second base he looked for divots in the dirt because if he didn’t smooth those out and a grounder hit one, he might get a bad hop and a brand new set of teeth and in his home park he found divots every single night and after playing three days in Kauffman he hadn’t found even one.
Good dirt…who knew?
So talking to players about what matters to them seems like a pretty good idea, but people who build and maintain ballparks rarely seem to do it and to see how that causes problems you don’t have to look much further than the Kauffman Stadium field-level scoreboards.
After those were added I saw a third base coach hesitate before giving a signal to a runner and when I asked why, he said he was staring into the lights of the right field scoreboard and couldn’t tell if the ball had been caught or dropped and was relying on the reaction of the Royals fans to make his decision.
(So if the outfield fans could get together and decide to give the wrong reaction to what happens on the field – cheer for a dropped ball and moan when one’s caught – it could mislead opposing teams when they’re running the bases and I feel confident the Houston Astros are working on that.)
After asking around it turned out the on-field scoreboards were affecting how games were played which I’m pretty sure nobody thought about that before installing them.
The rolling roof
So for a while everyone in KC got excited about the idea of a roof that could roll between Arrowhead and Kauffman Stadium and by “everyone” I pretty much mean the people who would have made a shitload of money building it.
If someone said maybe we ought to pave over the Missouri River and park cars on it, construction companies would be all for it because whether or not it would work or was actually needed they’d make a lot of money building it.
If there’s money to be made, no idea is bad enough to reject.
So the KC Star editorial board gets invited to take a look at the rolling roof project while simultaneously having hot air blown up our asses and someone made the mistake of inviting me along and I asked the people who designed it if the roof was going to be white like it was in the drawings because white is not an ideal background color for tracking fly balls.
The people who built the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis went a step further and added little round white lights that looked pretty much like baseballs, so every time a ball went up, outfielders got to play Guess Which Little Round White Object Is Moving?
The reaction of the rolling roof designers made it clear they hadn’t thought much about the roof’s color and they had pretty much the same reaction when I asked how the roof would affect the flight of baseballs and I think the overwhelming consensus in the room was that I shouldn’t be asked to come along on any more editorial board fact-finding tours.
In Pittsburgh you’ve got those shiny, glass office buildings in the background, which look really cool…unless you’re a hitter, catcher or umpire and the game is in the early innings because the setting sun shines off those buildings and blinds anyone looking toward centerfield.
Bottom line: when you build a brand new ballpark there are a lot of ways to screw things up and if you don’t talk to players about them (and they won’t) your odds of screwing up are increased by about a thousand percent.
OK, so what about a downtown ballpark here in Kansas City?
Where will people park?
General parking in Kauffman Stadium is $20 and I’ve been to downtown ballparks where it costs $75 to park a car and there’s no room to tailgate and once games are over, getting out of downtown is like trying to find a seat in a Titanic lifeboat because everyone is trying to leave at once, so if you like the idea of a downtown ballpark plan on getting stuck in traffic, paying out the ass for parking and maybe food because you won’t be able to grill your own hotdogs and burgers; you’ll be forced to eat pregame meals at downtown restaurants which is one of the reasons business people like downtown ballparks.
But won’t it be good for the local economy?
Not nearly as much as you’ll be encouraged to think.
Do just a bit of research (which is exactly how much I did) and you find out the only new money a ballpark brings in are visitors to your town that wouldn’t visit otherwise and Kansas City is already a regional draw because if you live in Bumfuck, Iowa (and I’d like to think there are some good fucks in Iowa, but am under-experienced in that area) KC is the biggest city around and you’ll probably come here anyway.
So other than out-of-town visitors who come to see baseball, you’re just shifting money around in your local economy because people who go see the Chiefs aren’t using their entertainment dollars to go to movies or eat in restaurants and when the Chiefs are playing you could fire a howitzer through most of our shopping malls without fear of hitting anybody.
The shoppers are all home watching the Chiefs.
The people who want to build this stuff will also talk about the “prestige” of a downtown ballpark, but if your team sucks the New Ballpark Prestige Factor wears off pretty quickly and I’m guessing the people of Baltimore don’t feel like they’re getting a boatload of prestige out of Camden Yards now that Orioles have lost 102 games.
If your team’s good people will go pretty much anywhere to see them play (and that includes Green Bay, Wisconsin in January) and if your team’s bad people won’t go to see them even if the games are held in the lobby of Buckingham Palace, which assumes Buckingham Palace actually has a lobby, but I really think you’re getting off track here so try to focus.
When they were selling the idea of the Sprint Center to Kansas City we needed to build it for the NBA or NHL franchise we were going to have any minute and if you’re thinking “I didn’t realize Kansas City has an NBA team” that’s because we don’t and now we’re all supposed to forget that’s why we built it and be happy that Garth Brooks has a spiffy new place to put on concerts.
According to a recent poll (which are never wrong and if you don’t believe me, just ask President Hillary Clinton) Kansas Citians don’t support a downtown ballpark and the support drops even lower, depending on how much money taxpayers have to choke up to build one.
Apparently the Chiefs have said they expect parity with the Royals, so if you build one downtown stadium you might need to build two. And if you’re spending $600 million of taxpayer money on a new ballpark, you’re not spending $600 million on something your city might need even more and I’m guessing $600 million might fill about half the potholes in Kansas City.
Just in case you’re interested, here’s more on that:
So every few years someone in KC gets excited about building a downtown ballpark and then we have to go around in circles about what it would mean and how much it would cost and I’m not sure where this round of Downtown Ballpark Mania will wind up, but before signing on to the idea people ought to think about it logically; I mean it would be really neat for every kid to own a pony, but maybe your garage doesn’t have room for a corral.
But if we ever do get around to building a downtown ballpark, I have a piece of advice:
Talk to some ballplayers first.